THE BEAN BELT
If you found your way to this page, then the odds are that you want to understand better the differences in the regions where our beloved coffee beans are grown. Regarding beans, there are two main types: Arabica, which makes up about 70% of the market, and Robusta, which makes up the remainder. The big difference between the two is in where each is grown. Because Robusta is most often produced in higher temperatures, the beans tend to be more bitter. Additionally, they contain about 50% more caffeine than Arabica. There are good and bad areas for growing coffee, with the prime real estate known as the Bean Belt. That’s a latitudinal space roughly bound by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — and within that swath of land, there’s a lot of coffee diversity.
At the top of that belt is Central America. Most coffees in this region are harvested from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Described as having a clean and bright taste with good acidity, coffees from this region are often considered a sort of everyman’s coffee: exceptionally well-balanced and mild to medium in body. Remember that red plastic container of coffee in your fridge? It’s pretty much all from here. That said, there’s plenty of high-grade Central American coffee being served in specialty coffee shops around the country.
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Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia make up the bulk of coffee growing countries in South America. Most us are familiar with the term “Colombian coffee”, and that’s because it’s well-marketed and a lot of chain restaurants serve it. Still, it’s Brazil that’s the world’s largest coffee producer — they provide 25% of the beans we consume in the States — and Brazilian coffee can vary in profile from spicy and rich to mild and fruity. With a climate similar to its northern neighbors, South American coffees generally share many of the characteristics with those of Central America, and are often very mild-bodied. While being a light, clean cup, these coffees are also a bit creamier, sometimes with a slight chocolate aftertaste.
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A handful of countries make up the coffee-growing regions of Africa. The sprawling continent provides plenty of excellent coffee-growing areas, each producing a unique, complex cup of coffee that is generally described as sweet, fruity and floral. The earliest known coffee drinking happened in Ethiopia and Yemen, both countries that still produce highly regarded beans using traditional methods. If you’re looking for the current hip region for coffee beans, this is it, with the most popular roasts coming from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
But with that popularity also comes some concern. Slave and child labor are still very real problems in African coffee regions (and others as well), which is one of the reasons underpinning the fair trade certification scheme. By purchasing fair trade, you are, among other things, buying the peace of mind that slave labor was not involved in the making of your morning Joe. But keep in mind that there’s no universally accepted standard for fair trade coffee, and some people claim that sellers simply adhere to whichever set of rules is the most lenient. In other words, do a little research before buying coffee from regions with cruel labor practices.
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In the Pacific Rim, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and the Philippines are the most popular coffee growers, and for good reason. Robusta, the bitter beans that make up only 30% of the world’s coffee production, are mainly produced here. If you hear “big and bold” describing a cup, it’s more than likely coming from this area of the world. One of our favorite sub-regions is Sumatra, which produces a bean that’s often described as “earthy”, “herbal”, and “full-bodied”.
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Is it North America or is it Central America? MEXICO... I have always viewed it as Central America however I have discovered that I have been wrong. Mexico is not part of Central America, rather it is the southern most part of North America. There is no other location in North America that is growing specialty grade coffee within the North American continent. Mexico grows and produces amazing coffee. It's our opinion that it is one of the most underrated coffee's in the world.
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